Friday, September 28, 2012

The problem with Andrew Sullivan (and American public culture), Exhibit A

Re: Catholicism and the Romney/Ryan ticket, Sullivan writes:

A small word of thanks to Cardinal Dolan, Robert George and K-Lo for helping shift the Catholic vote massively toward Obama with their summer campaign for religious liberty. And special thanks to Paul Ryan. No actual Catholic could ever find anything but puerile cruelty in the works of Ayn Rand, or rally to the idea that home-care for the elderly should be sacrificed to reduce tax rates for the super-rich. Paul Ryan believes that the basic principles of Rand can be compatible with Catholicism. American Catholics are just not that dumb or confused about their faith.

Hoo boy. Where does one even begin?

It's like he takes pride in being ignorant.

He's not alone.

The outright distortion of Ayn Rand's ideas in our popular culture has become a persistent, pathological pattern.  Are people really this bad at understanding even an accessible philosopher?  Do differences in philosophical viewpoint (namely in regard to her advocacy of capitalism and her concept of egoism) license the non-stop barrage of outrageous and intellectually incompetent smears that have been leveled against Rand and her ideas?  I don't know if I've ever seen anyone else so thoroughly and recklessly smeared as Rand, or ideas so thoroughly smeared as Objectivist ones, and in a manner so insensitive to context in either case.  Even Rand's horrible polemics against Kant hit closer to home than these ridiculous commentaries do.  This is some fucked up shit, there's just no mincing words here.  It is a sadder commentary on the state of our culture, than anything.  A culture of people who thought like Rand did would be way too Aristotelian to come anywhere close to being this fucked-up.

We have a leading public-affairs blogger in Andrew Sullivan, who can't so much as be bothered to get a clue about an intellectual who has become a prominent figure in the American public discourse.  I can't imagine this kind and degree of widespread piss-poor treatment of her ideas happening, were she around to defend herself and speak for herself as she was in the 1960s.  There simply would be no way that these people could get away with it.  In the present day, what accountability will Sullivan face for his blatantly idiotic comment?

How do we expect to have an intelligent discussion of public affairs and move the dialogue forward if standards have fallen this low?

In addition to this here blog, there's intellectually responsible, high-quality Rand-interpretive literature out there, for those who have such considerable shortcomings in reading comprehension skills as not to understand Rand's ideas first-hand.  (I mean, these bloggers, commentators, op-ed writers, et al, don't seem to even minimally grasp what Rand said much less meant, it's that fucking bad.)  Such literature includes:

Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, eds., The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand (University of Illinois Press, 1984)

Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (Dutton, 1991)

Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (Penn State Press, 1995)

The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies - various articles by such authors as Roger Bissell, Stephen Hicks, Lester Hunt, Roderick Long, Douglas Rasmussen, and others (1999-present)

* Robert Mayhew, ed., Essays on Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (Lexington Books, 2006)

Robert Mayhew, ed., Essays on Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (Lexington Books, 2009)

Allan Gotthelf and James Lennox, eds., Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue: Studies in Ayn Rand's Normative Theory (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011)

Leonard Peikoff, Understanding Objectivism (1983 lecture course edited by Michael Berliner) (New American Library, 2012)

Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy entry (Neera Badhwar and Roderick Long, 2012)

Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri, eds., Ayn Rand: A Companion to Her Works and Thought (Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming)

* - One essay in this collection the smear-artists may be especially interested in evading is Andrew Bernstein's "Understanding the 'Rape' Scene in The Fountainhead."

Any respectable, comprehensive, scholarly work on Ayn Rand's ideas in the future will have to engage this secondary literature.  The recent books by Jennifer BurnsAnne Heller, and Gary Weiss hardly (if at all) touch upon this literature in any meaningful way.

(Nearly a dozen works just right there - that's a lot of literature for so many Rand-commentators to be ignoring!  Is it mere coincidence?  Is it sufficient for them to read only the two big novels while skimming the speeches?  Is this how scholarship or journalism is done these days?  Is Rand only of interest because of her influence, not because of what the best interpretative commentaries have to say, and regardless of how well her professed admirers understand and apply her ideas?  Does the fact of her large influence still excuse the shoddiness of their own descriptions of her ideas?  Is Marx's influence on the Soviets the basis on which we should talk about Marx's ideas, while having next to zero grasp of what Marx actually said or meant?  Let's also not forget to ask: How would an Aristotelianized culture approach Rand's ideas?  Better yet, what would our hypothetical present-day Aristotle say about Rand's ideas?  No one seems to want to touch that one with a ten-foot pole.  Why?  Have they just not been imaginative enough to even raise or ponder such a question?  Has it never occurred to them to ask themselves, "What would the great philosophers say on issue X?"  If so, why?  We've got a decadent culture that would make Franklin and Jefferson puke; wouldn't they be interested in the reasons and causes?  I mean, everyone who's given it a moment's thought knows that Jefferson and Franklin would puke if they saw what's become of the Republic.  Would Jefferson and Franklin and Aristotle dare to ignore the secondary Rand literature, or to go out of their way to misinterpret the primary literature?  Would they ever take pride in being ignorant?  What, am I the crazy one here?)


There is also the matter of smears of Ayn Rand the person, some of which are so disgusting, so reprehensible, so vicious, so intellectually and morally negligent, that they shouldn't even have to be addressed, but there are a couple smears that keep circulating around the internets which have the potential to mislead some well-meaning people.  (The original propagators of these smears are not committing honest errors in the midst of a spirit of objectivity, accuracy, fairness, context, or anything like these noble things.  They are malicious and shameful characters.)  These smears are:

1. "Ayn Rand, despite espousing a limited government philosophy, accepted Social Security and Medicare benefits in her old age."  This is alleged proof of hypocrisy on her part.  However, there is a publicly-available statement by Miss Rand on the subject of accepting government monies or benefits.  (Her argument is problematic for other reasons - namely as to whether one has a right to accept government benefits depending on the contents of the recipients' beliefs - but not on the grounds she gave for its being morally permissible to accept government benefits.)

Evidence that this smear arises from malicious intent: (A) The smear-propagators didn't do any thorough fact-checking to determine whether Rand was in fact acting against her principles.  They could have at the least contacted the Ayn Rand Institute for comment, as a responsible fact-gatherer would.  (B) The revelation that Rand accepted these benefits was contained in a book, 100 Voices: The Oral History of Ayn Rand.  (This book was released in part to counter some of the negative things said about Rand published in the Burns and Heller books; there are legitimate concerns about the editorial decisions for 100 Voices to "suppress" more negative testimonials given that the testimonials included are almost overwhelmingly positive.  The book is, however, a needed counter-balance to the negative commentaries.  The ARI could hardly anticipate how the content of 100 Voices would be used by unscrupulous assholes to add further to the anti-Rand commentary out there.)  The use of this revelation was highly selective, taken out of the context of the entire book.  The honorable thing to do at the very least would have been to mention the essential content of the rest of the book along with this factoid.  One thing these dishonorable sonsofbitches decided to ignore was testimonial from Allan Gotthelf, a leading Aristotle scholar and student of Rand, who said that attending Rand's epistemology "workshops" was "the equivalent of having Aristotle in the room."  (I suppose one can excuse the sonsofbitches given their ignorance of Gotthelf and his work so as not to realize what an eyebrow-raiser his comment was.  That then makes them ignorant sonsofbitches in addition to being dishonorable ones for the reasons stated above.)

2. Ayn Rand "worshipped a child-murderer, using him as a model for her heroes."  I submit that this smear is malicious on the face of it.  First off, Rand's commentary on Hickman was contained in her journals, published as Journals of Ayn Rand in 1997.  These juicy journal entries were just sitting there for a decade for any intellectual thug to come along and seize upon, and yet no one bothered to notice them.  Well, actually, no.  Serious Rand scholars knew about them.  After all, Sciabarra noticed and made mention of it; this is even footnoted for easy access right there on the Hickman wikipedia page.  Strangely enough, Sciabarra didn't draw the conclusion that Rand modeled her heroes on Hickman.  I wonder why?  Oh, that's right.  It's because Sciabarra is literally obsessed (as is any cognitively healthy thinker or scholar) with the whole notion of context, motherfuckers.  As in, what is the context (historical, literary, whatever factors come to bear on it) of Rand's intellectual development?  Were Rand's later thoughts and writings a reaction to or repudiation of her earlier thoughts?  Hell, did Rand even do anything like "worship" the child-murderer?  I have to admit, the Journals are something I didn't really get into; I think the Letters are much better and more interesting (actually, downright engaging - a rare truly-must-read, literary river of gold, etc.) as a look into Rand's development as a thinker (and her awesomeness as a human being).  All truth be told, I found the Journals boring enough that once I put it down I could hardly pick it up.  But I had to go back and look because this whole Hickman thing didn't really draw me in the first time around ca. '97.  And now I know why: because Hickman's role in her intellectual development was so inconsequential.  And her comments on Hickman couldn't even remotely - not honestly - be considered "worship."  Her journal entries in this regard were ramblings that mainly focused on something she found awry about the society's reaction not simply to his murderous ways but to his defiant ways, namely, that he didn't care what society thought, and that's what made people so much more angry at him.  The "don't care what others think" does show up in the character of Howard Roark but in the best way possible, not in the socio/psychopathic sense that the idiots keep smearing Rand with.

Anyway, these journal entries go unnoticed for over a decade because the lazy idiots never bothered to read any Sciabarra.  But the subject comes up in the Burns book, and all of a sudden they're a big deal. But what's this now?  They focus their attention on the Burns book, but it's a selective and out-of-context focus.  There are other Rand books that have come out in temporal proximity to Burns's.  There's Prof. Smith's 2006 book, there's 100 Voices, there's Peikoff's Understanding Objectivism just recently published, there's all those books listed above.  Are we seriously expected to believe that the smear-mongers just accidentally failed to notice this other literature?

These people would make Socrates and Aristotle just fucking puke their guts out.

Which necessarily calls forth the following question, in the context of this blog entry's original focus: What would Aristotle think of Andrew Sullivan and The Dish?  Would he be all that impressed?  Is "Bias and Balanced" an Aristotelian sort of masthead, whatever the humorous intent?  Would Aristotle appreciate Sullivan's excruciatingly concrete-bound way of filling up his blog with short-range-focused trivia pertaining to the political news cycle, or would he consider that to be a massive waste of time given the long-range focus of philosophy?  At some point a philosopher sees enough concretes to be able to identify the principle involved, and move further up the cognitive ladder integrating those principles, as (abstract) units themselves, with other principles.  It's called unit-economy, motherfuckers, and it's supposed to characterize, as a norm, the specifically human mode of mental functioning.  (How else do you think Rand achieved a river-of-gold writing style as evidenced by these Lexicon entries?  By filling up pages with a large number of intellectually redundant units?  You do realize how the "Perfectivism" book presently in the works aims to condense a lot of useful information into a short amount of space, right?  Why settle for anything less than a page-turner, amiright?)  There was a time when I would learn things from reading The Dish, but that time has passed; I've integrated and essentialized the gist of it and moved on to making broader integrations and essentializations.

Note again that The Dish is a "leading" public-affairs blog - in a broken, proto-dystopian culture in which mainstream debates on "the issues" can be only so intelligent.  But the issue - The Issue - is the broken culture itself.  It is a culture that could really shape up with a generous injection of Aristotelianism in particular and habituated (automatized), unit-economizing, essentialized critical thinking in general.   Ayn Rand wrote that the highest responsibility of philosophers is to serve as the guardians and integrators of human knowledge (ITOE).  Now that sounds right up Aristotle's alley, dunnit?  By contrast, all that Sullivan can seem to muster, at least in regard to Ayn Rand, is puerility.

P.S. Toward the end of my previous blog entry I asked the following: "Ever hear one mention - one fucking mention - of Tara Smith's, or Peikoff's, or Sciabarra's work in the lamestream media?  On the usual "liberal" news sites like the Huffington Post?  Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish?"  We now have our answer: No, of course he wouldn't mention these works; he's proudly ignorant of them.  But he will throw in some gratuitious, arbitrary and vicious remarks about an Ayn Rand that doesn't remotely resemble the Ayn Rand discussed in these works, much less the Ayn Rand as understood by probably a great many of his readers.  I guess he just doesn't give a shit.  What else might he be spouting off ignorantly about?  Hmmm?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Wolff, Romney, Marx, and Rand

First, a little bit of background: About a year and a half ago, in the month or so leading up to the release of the first installment of the Atlas Shrugged movie, I made the not-all-that-wise move of posting a link to a blog entry of mine in the comments section of Robert Paul Wolff's blog, which had the effect of "stealing" a bit of his audience for a bit of time before my posted comment was removed.  For that I apologize.  As I came to realize, blog etiquette tends to involve building up an audience in a more fair-and-square fashion, the exact contours of which are often discovered through a process of trial-and-error, that incident being an error on my part.  (I can only imagine what many bloggers and site admins have to put up with in comments sections; what little experience I had with it led me to turn off comments to this blog and invite feedback by email-only.  But I'm so wonderfully self-correcting, what feedback do I really need? :-)

Okay, that said, let's proceed.  Recently as I was rummaging around for content online (an ever-ongoing process, BTW, not just a recent thing - see this blog's "masthead"), I encountered this blog entry by Prof. Wolff, and I find it (in essence) chillingly spot-on:

There has been a good deal of speculation about the hour-long video that has surfaced of the now truly infamous supposedly private Mitt Romney speech to $50,000 a plate donors.  [I use the adjective "infamous" in its proper meaning, "detestable or shamefully malign," not in its current misusage as simply "widely known."]  Present in  the room were Romney, the fat cats, and servants scurrying about bringing the food and clearing the dirty plates.  The angle of the video makes it clear that it was not recorded by one of the guests, so we can only conclude that one of the wait staff managed to set up a camera and film the proceedings. 
Upper classes always ignore the presence of their servants, a fact that gave rise to an entire genre of eighteenth century French comedy.  [Think "The Marriage of Figaro" without the immortal music.]  Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they seem constitutionally incapable of remembering that the working class is populated by actual human beings with eyes and ears and fully functional intelligence.  This failure is ideological, not personal, in nature.  Were the rich and powerful of the world to acknowledge the full humanity of those they exploit, they would find it difficult to sustain the easy air of superiority that they consider their birthright.
At Romney's rich donor dinner, it is a virtual certainty that the wait staff consisted of men [and perhaps women -- one cannot tell from the video] who make too little money to pay federal income taxes, and hence are among the 47% whom Romney says are dependent moochers who cannot take personal responsibility for their lives.  These people were obviously in full view of Romney as he stood at the podium and spoke for more than an hour.  The fact that it obviously never occurred to him that he was talking about people present in the room says more about Romney than any formal biography or hatchet job expose possibly can.

First off, I'll take issue mainly with some things in the middle paragraph here.  "This failure is ideological, not personal, in nature."  I'm not quite sure how to take this statement.  Is it that a capitalistic ideology (which Romney & Co. do buy into in some form or other) causes people like Romney to be oblivious to the humanity of waitstaff at his gatherings, or is it a moral failing, or is it something like a cognitive bias, a problem that besets just about everyone (and which philosophers see as their duty responsibility to correct as best they can, as part of the knowledge-guarding-and-integrating process)?  Is it part of the Romney ideology that the "servants" don't possess full humanity?  Is it part of capitalistic ideology?  Is it some process by which Romney's or anyone else's having adopted a capitalistic ideology leads to ignoring the full humanity of the "servants"?  I think it is more of a personal failing, in the cognitive-bias sense rather than in a moral sense (though I won't rule out the moral sense).  Anyway, that's nitpicking one sentence.  The other sentence is the very ideologically-contentious one that there's "exploiting" going on.

But first, let's say that my idea of a much better (utopian?) society is one that is capitalistic (as Wolff's other blog posts make clear, he'd endorse markets but not capitalism) while at the same time intellectually-enlightened, philosophically-imbued.  (Would Plato, Aristotle, and Kant be capitalists [ideologically speaking, not "moneybags"] today, assuming they got together with all data available to intellectually-diligent middle-aged folks today and hashed things out among them, perhaps with Jefferson and Franklin and a bud-sharing Carl Sagan thrown in the mix?  I'll get to this more in a bit.)  So, assuming some uncorrect biases don't creep in too much, you wouldn't have Romney-types being so oblivious to the waitstaff-types.  (This is where Wolff gets it spot-on, although for all we know some of the waitstaff may be putting themselves through business school so that they can jump class-ranks. ;-)  So what we do know is that Romney is great with money (making it, minimizing tax liabilities, etc.), kind of a boring douchebag, and big on Mormonism, while his supposedly heavily-Rand-influenced running mate is also a douchebag (if only for his views on medical - medical! - marijuana and, now, same-sex marriage).

I want to also say that Prof. Wolff and I are coming from quite-different contexts.  In his "about me" section, he writes: "As I observed in one of my books, in politics I am an anarchist, in religion I am an atheist, and in economics I am a Marxist. I am also, rather more importantly, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a violist."  I'm not any of these things; in fact I once made the observation when reading this that anarchism is the opposite of politics and atheism the opposite of religion, so what does that make Marxism with respect to economics?  Of course things are more complicated than that; he clarifies that he's an anarchist in the sense that we aren't obligated to obey the law just because it is the law (quite sensible, though what if it isn't "just a law," but a law integrally decided-upon within a separation-of-powers system? complications...).  Many people mean many different things by "atheism"; I don't identify as such but I might be one according to some folks or definitions.  (How would we know if there's a God or gods?  Haven't found a satisfactory answer yet.)  But most significantly, as far as ideological things go, is our very different context when it comes to Marxism and capitalism.  I've been ideologically a capitalist since just about the time I ever got interested in politics, which is before adulthood, and have yet to seriously entertain Marxism or socialism.  (I've had to seriously entertain anarchism in its David Friedmanite manifestation.  But still far removed from socialism.)

My intellectual context?  At this point it's been influenced by Ayn Rand well more than anyone.  It's not so much that I think Rand is so much more the be-all and end-all than everyone else out there; it's just a matter of biographical fact that I've been exposed to her ideas quite a bit more than those of any other philosopher out there.  Some folks - like a certain leading philosopher blogger I'd rather not name, but who's a complete douchebag and imbecile whenever the subject of Rand comes up - might say that this is so much philosophical time wasted.  My response to that is: you have to know my context.  There's a lot in Rand to be inspired by, though my immersion in Objectivist thought was quite extensive and thorough: I listened to well over 100 hours of Peikoff lecture courses, including the crucial, now-published-in-paperback Understanding Objectivism.  I had much exposure to Objectivist internet forums, including Jimmy Wales's Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy (MDOP) back in the day.  I've interacted with real, live Advanced Students of Objectivism who are perfectly normal and fun people.  (I've had online interactions with ASO's who weren't so great, cognitively biased partisans and dogmatists a lot of them.)  I've read abundant amounts of the secondary literature - the intensively researched Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical by Sciabarra, The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand edited by "Dougs" Ramussen and Den Uyl, to name a couple - and have spent thousands of hours thinking about these ideas.  I would say that the most pivotal secondary literature is Understanding Objectivism; without that absorbed into the fiber of your being, you don't really have Objectivism as Rand meant it to be understood - not just as a doctrine, but as a way - a method - of thinking (which in turn affects one's way of living).  And I've come to the conclusion that this way of thinking is neo-Aristotelian, perfectivist (hence what's in my own "about me" section).  And you just can't refute perfectivism. :-)

Now, my understanding of Rand probably parallels Wolff's understanding of Marx.  By much the same token, my understanding of Marx is probably comparable to his understanding of Rand, i.e., I wouldn't go to him as a source on what Rand said and meant.  Also by the same token, it's evident that he has built up an impressive edifice of thought surrounding Marx's economic doctrines.  I'd have to spend thousands of hours of integration to know what he knows; this is simply the nature of specialized expertise, just like Romney has his own specialized expertise requiring thousands of hours of integration of knowledge.  As Rand said, integration is the cardinal function of human consciousness.  It's right there in the Lexicon. :-)  I have no idea if Marx said something similar.  But this gets to another point I want to make: the nature of dialectic.  Could there be a productive dialectic between a Rand and a Marx, despite their clashing contexts?  ("Clashing contexts" is a phrase that may be recognizable to ASO's.  But it would be applicable in the context of Sciabarra's treatment as well, dialectics being "the art of context-keeping" in his phrasing).  If Rand and Marx could adequately grasp each other's context - which is an aim of dialectic if not a simple matter of empathy - if they could be set walking in the same direction rather than arguing at cross-purposes, what kind of "synthesis" might emerge?  I ask this as a perfectivist.  We all have the same set of empirical facts in front of us; how do we go about integrating them in a commonly-accepted way?

Above I asked what the result of Plato, Aristotle, and Kant dialecticizing might be.  Would they support capitalism?  Socialism?  Something else?  Before we even get to that question, though, what are things they would agree about?  Being philosophers, they would (I'm pretty sure) agree that using our powers of reasoning to the utmost would be most desirable as a policy of living.  Guess what - Rand agrees with that.  Would they agree about ethics being eudaimonistic in a more or less strictly Aristotelian sense?  A perfectivist sense, which I think Aristotle was?  (Perfectivism says: If Aristotelian eudaimonism is found faulty, let's find something better; indeed, let's find the best thing we can possibly find within the limits of our cognitive abilities.  But isn't that perfectivist attitude that of Aristotelian eudaimonism?  Can it be refuted?  Put another way, aren't philosophers qua philosophers cognitive perfectivists?  Is perfectivism different from a most rigorous application of dialectical ability, or is it synonymous with it?  If the latter, how do you refute that?)  Anyway, I'm big on eudaimonism, which I take to be a practical (from praxis) corollary of cognitive perfectivism.  I think Rand would agree on that as well.

Let's take a couple key statements by Rand, indicating her approach to philosophical hierarchy ("hierarchy" being another term well-known to ASO's seeing as it's a central focus of Understanding Objectivism, after all, and further indicative of cognitive perfectivism).  First, there is her statement about the theme of Atlas Shrugged.  (Hold on, I've got to review/refresh, spiral-like - oh there's another UO term - my understanding of Rand's ideas about literary theme.  You're invited to join me here; that link should help you.  I might have to click on some of the cross-referenced links for integration purposes, so this could take a bit of time.  You do realize that Rand put forth formulations of her philosophy in more than novels, right, newbies?  What, did you already know what the theme of Atlas Shrugged was?  That it isn't "The superman gets to prosper, while the weak can rot"?)

"Its theme is: the role of the mind in man’s existence—and, as corollary, the demonstration of a new moral philosophy: the morality of rational self-interest."  --For the New Intellectual, 88

Now, the morality of rational self-interest as a corollary.  See above about eudaimonism as a corollary of cognitive perfectivism.

So, we have "the role of mind in man's existence."  Now, another quote: "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."  (Heroism or nobility - didn't Rand approvingly quote something from Nietzsche about nobility - see the 1968 introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of The Fountainhead - and didn't Kaufmann in a footnote to that and another aphorism direct our attention to . . . Aristotle?  Damn.  [Integration, see.])  And then there's this: "I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.  This—the supremacy of reason—was, is and will be the primary concern of my work, and the essence of Objectivism."  And what - in full - does Rand mean by "reason"?  It's spelled out in detail - well, in outline form - in the chapters on epistemology in Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand ("OPAR"), and in fuller detail (i.e., with respect to cognitive integration, hierarchy, and context) in Understanding Objectivism.  (Noticing a pattern here?)  Then we get Rand's statement on the basic virtue of her ethical system, the virtue of rationality.  (What, she didn't say that man's basic virtue is selfishness?  But but, but but but, what about the title to her book?  Consider the context of her titling her book that way, such as the time period she did so, and then consider what she actually says in the introduction and the lead essay, "The Objectivist Ethics," where the first selection in the Lexicon entry on rationality comes from.)

Now comes something ostensibly more controversial in substance: Individualism.  If one bothers to pay attention to Galt's radio address, one encounters this: "By the grace of reality and the nature of life, man - every man - is an end in himself, he exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose."  In full context, is there something - anything - objectionable here?  Do we go out of our way, as intellectually mediocre Rand critics often do, to misunderstand "for his own sake"?  (Personally I construe it to be the same in meaning as the title of chapter 1 (along with the substance of the book's essential theme) of paradigmatic eudaimonist David L. Norton's Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism: "The ethical priority of self-actualization."  But maybe that's just me, reading too charitably into Rand's "new concept of egoism."  Hah!)  In any case, we have in Rand's philosophical hierarchy an individualistic ethics, prior to her advocacy of capitalism in politics and economics.

Is capitalism the logical extension of individualism to politics?  Is political libertarianism (in the usual sense - e.g., the political philosophy of Nozick or Eric Mack or, indeed, of Rand herself) genuinely expressive of individualism, or of respecting the humanity of persons, or treating persons as ends in themselves?  Would Marxism as an alternative value individualism?  I would have to ask someone, like Prof. Wolff, who has studied Marx very indepth.  On a charitable reading, I would guess that Marx thought that capitalism produced an "alienated individuality," an atomistic individuality, one that undermined sociability and community, one that is ahistorical, perhaps (supposedly) a "Stirnerite" version Marx is famous for critiquing.  But isn't it most fortunate that Rand did not endorse such an "individualism"!  Need I post the Lexicon entry for "altruism" as Rand actually meant it?  (I'm kind of tired out with posting links at this point.)  Need I quote and re-quote Rand's statement about man being a social being but not in the sense that the moral cannibals (see We the Living) mean?  Need I refer to Sciabarra for the appropriate context-keeping treatment of the subject?  And of course, if we have a perfectivistic eudaimonism, we have to take into account Aristotle on sociability.

Anyway, I don't know if Prof. Wolff would object to a proper individualism; but let's say that he does.  We then come to the question of whether capitalism is expressive of, or instead undermines, individualism.  This is a very serious and important question.  On the question of the proper socio-political system for human beings, many (individual, invaluable, potentially-flourishing) lives hang in the balance.  If capitalism is inherently exploitative, it means some humans treating others merely as means, not respecting their humanity fully (whether they intend it or not), it means individuals to that extent alienated from one another, it means a suppression of human flourishing.  For all the appearance of capitalist acts between adults being consented-to, do the relations involve presuppose an unjust power-dynamic?  This requires a serious answer without begging important questions or dismissing "Marxists" in the unforgiving (and arguably quite context-insensitive) fashion that some Objectivists have recommended.  There is a dialectical tension here crying out for resolution.  And let's make it clear: Rand advocated reason and individualism as primaries.  If capitalism is somehow shown to undermine these, then it's capitalism that has to go.  I take Rand at her word; individualism is primary to her normative philosophy, and not some post-hoc rationalization for capitalist politics (as many of her intellectually-mediocre and suspiciously projective-sounding opponents charge).

At this point in time I do not have a knock-down argument (by which I mean one that could convince someone like Prof. Wolff) showing that capitalism is the only right social-political system on individualist grounds - or, as Rand would put it, the only system proper to humans given their requirements for living as rational beings, given "the role of the mind in man's existence."  I do think that an intellectually-enlightened "Aristotelian utopia" would have the resources to deal voluntarily and charitably with people's safety-net needs should (capitalistic) institutions based on private ownership of the means of production fail to meet those people's flourishing-based needs.  (When I hear socialists describe their own views, I tend to hear "worker ownership of the means of production," but really haven't given that idea much thought given my context of reading Mises and Nozick: "What if a worker saves enough money and decides to open and direct his own business, using entrepreneurial skill?"  Where does it go from there?  Is that okay, but corporate-forms of ownership not?  Do we need to distinguish private property or capitalism from corporatism?  In an intellectually-advanced society, do people become their own independent bosses anyway, making the corporate form obsolete?  Can the corporate-form realistically be reformed for the better?  Etc....)  But, thinking in more comprehensive terms than that, such a "utopia" would also have the intellectual resources by which to resolve disputes concerning whether capitalism is indeed the best system for human beings.*  I really don't know how Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Jefferson, Franklin, and Sagan (and Marx and Nozick and Rawls and Rand and Chomsky and Mises and...), after giving all sides a full and fair hearing would resolve these existing disputes to everyone's high standards of satisfaction.

I'd like to think that eudaimonistic individualism, however, is not so much open to dispute.  (And understood in perfectivist terms, how would it be?)  One thing that needs to happen in any event for a productive debate on politics to happen is for people to adequately understand their opponents' viewpoints to the opponents' satisfaction.  I've seen misunderstandings from opponents of other people's ideas (not just of Rand's ideas, though perhaps especially of her ideas) happen way too much and to too ridiculous an extent for there to be much of a productive debate as things stand now.  That's why hierarchy matters: what we need, first, is a (perfective) betterment of people's cognitive faculties so that such misunderstanding becomes one less (major) obstacle we have to deal with in the pursuit of what is true and right.

* - The intellectual resources in such a scenario would be put to use addressing a lot of challenges - perhaps most importantly scientific ones, perhaps most importantly spiritual ones - and not just this one.

EDIT: This article just crossed my field of vision.  "Gee, what's this whole Ayn Rand thing all about in American political discussion?"  From the perspective of someone who thinks in terms of "spiral progression of knowledge," "sense of life," "psycho-epistemology," "measurement-omission," "rule of fundamentality," "rationality as the primary virtue," and other such Objectivism-isms, I find a major clashing of contexts going on here.  Right now we've got a bunch of ordinary citizens and Randophobes (the author's term, I like it!), many of them on the MSNBC-watching Left, running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to come to grips with "the Rand thing."  ("She espouses such monstrously hateful things, how can anyone take her seriously?  Premises have to be checked here!"  Indeed.)  So how does one "present Ayn Rand" (interpretively, that is) to folks who are only superficially intellectual - perhaps having read only the novels - who get a lot of their ideas from op-eds and cable news and soundbites and whatnot?  You can't exactly point them to Sciabarra, Peikoff, Tara Smith, or Gotthelf books and say, "Read them, will you, please?  Then we'll talk."  But then what do you do exactly?  Give televised lectures on C-SPAN (who watches that?) which don't - can't - go into philosophical depth?  Go on cable news and have the usual talking-head shouting matches?  What do you do?  I suppose you can throw 30,000 darts at a wall (the Fountainhead high-school essay contests) and get one or two Objectivists into a possible tenure-track position at a well-ranked university every few years, but that's been done and these people still ignore the output.  (Ever hear one mention - one fucking mention - of Tara Smith's, or Peikoff's, or Sciabarra's work in the lamestream media?  On the usual "liberal" news sites like the Huffington Post?  Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish?  The political blogosphere?  Hell, the "leading" "philosophical" blogs?  I think the total count here is approximately zippo, nada, rien, nicht.  I think once, maybe twice, there was a mention of the Ayn Rand Society somewhere.  Barring a fucking miracle, would we expect something different to happen after Wiley publishes the forthcoming Gotthelf-edited book?  In short, it's really, really pathetic what's going on here, folks.)  This actually points to a wider problem: how do you present philosophically-imbued ideas, period, in an intellectually-dysfunctional culture?  How do you make it an intelligent discussion about things like integration and virtue and not just about politics and economics?  I mean, shit, philosophers - any of them that you could name; Rand is hardly an exception - are bound to be misunderstood by a large segment of the public.  How does one raise the standard, other than a (commonsensical?) approach to educational reform with emphasis on critical thinking skills?  How fucking hard could it be, really?  Can't we at least begin at the margins and work from there?  Wh- wh- what, has the whole world gone crazy? ;-)

Sunday, September 23, 2012


Had Aristotle's dialogues survived, would we as a species be dealing with 1/10th the shit we're having to deal with?  Would the technological singularity and therefore indefinite bio-life-extension have been reached centuries ago?  Would Averroes be tons more famous and influential than Osama bin Laden?  Would modern scientists have figured out long ago that it's Aristotle's method and not his conclusions that are essential to understanding him, thereby cementing his status yet further as an Atlas of the Western world?  Would Sam Harris dare not incorporate Aristotelianism into his recent best-selling layperson-accessible treatise on ethics?  Would the young intellectual rebels not be so enchanted with Nietzsche to the exclusion of the Big A?  Would Nietzsche already have been Aristotelianized?  Would MacIntyre's After Virtue be necessary?  Would Rand's extant writings be necessary?  How might the Thomistic synthesis have otherwise proceeded, assuming it were necessary?  Would Jesus of Nazareth already have been Aristotelianized?  Would Marcus Aurelius merely represent the norm in political leadership?  Would "cognitive integration" be a commonsense lay-term describing the norm of human living?  Wouldn't Jefferson, Franklin, et al, obviously have been Aristotelianized, thereby saving America a ton of hurt in the long run?  Would every president be the intellectual caliber of a Jefferson?  Would John Cooper and Jonathan Lear, and not Snooki and Paris Hilton, be celebrities? Would Snooki be Aristotelianized?  Would Sarah Palin be Aristotelianized?  Who wouldn't be Aristotelianized, except for maybe a few stubborn asshole holdouts?  Would Jerry Falwell be a holdout?  Would Falwell be a celebrity by any stretch? Would Falwell as we knew him so much as exist, or would religious folk all be following the examples set by Aquinas, Averroes, and Maimonides, thereby saving the world a ton of hurt?  Would there be assholes?  Criminals?  Dictators?  Warmongers?  Would Mahlerian music be more or less the norm?  Kubrickian films more or less the norm?  Etc.

Would the surviving dialogues prove not all that effective at changing the human condition?  Are people incorrigibly corrupt or intellectually lazy?  Is free will an illusion?  What has kept philosophy from becoming the dominant force in humans' mental lives, anyway?  How do people manage to ignore the wisdom of the ages and keep on going as they've been going?  Does it have anything to do with "leading ethical philosophers" in the ivory tower leaving Aristotle pretty much completely out of their treatises?  (Did these ethicists not learn jackshit from MacIntyre?)  Have the philosophers themselves failed to connect with the layfolk (assuming Rand doesn't count as a philosopher, as many of the ivory-tower ethicists would have it)?  Is human history really just a byproduct of the material productive forces of each era, as many of the same ivory-tower folks have entertained?  How exactly is "dialectical materialism" supposed to be influenced by Aristotle, anyway?  Would Aristotle, were he around today, have spoken only to ivory-tower folks in only their terms, or would he have been a staunch popularizer?  Would he fall head-over-heels for socialism, or would he be more or less a hard-headed capitalist with a soft heart (h/t Alan Blinder) and a broader moral and intellectual message?  Would that still not prove effective at changing the human condition?  What if Plato and Kant, with the benefit of historical hindsight, got on board with that message all dialectical-like; would that still do any good?  What if the "stylistic river of gold" dialogues were all we had to work with instead?  Etc.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Does Aristotle matter?

An observation: The 'Draft of December 4 2008' version of Derek Parfit's recent magnum opus, On What Matters, contains all of four mentions of Aristotle in its many hundreds of pages.  Any words beginning with "euda" appear all of once.  The rest of the treatise is focused on (the?) three major ethical theories: Kantianism, contractualism, and consequentialism.  Parfit's project is to provide a synthesis of these theories, with Parfit "using the metaphor of the theories as 'climbing the same mountain on different sides.'" (wikipedia)

I suppose Aristotle and eudaimonia don't matter much?


(Have I been barking up the wrong, er, uh, mountain all this time?  Here I was, thinking that it was Aristotelianism, with its own highly assimilationist character - the most important things assimilated being concretes in everyday practical reality, not so much abstract theories - that provided a most satisfactory dialectical resolution of the other theories in addition to being essentially correct in its own right.  Well, shit.  Parfit 1, UP 0?)

Friday, September 21, 2012

The science of dumbing-down politics (even further)

Steven Hill writes:

Veteran reporter Howard Kurtz reported how the Obama campaign extensively pre-tested the president's speech last Thursday night using a ghastly-sounding technology known as "dial metre groups". Dial metre groups also were used to pre-test Obama's "State of the Union" speech last January. What is a dial metre group? It's a type of focus group where voters twist dials to register approval or disapproval of specific passages in a speech.
You can imagine where it goes from there.  (The rest of the op-ed explains, if you couldn't already guess it.)  The messages that today's politicians formulate toward voters are based on this most cynical of stimulus-and-response technologies; soulless, corporatist, philistine-oriented advertising strategy has taken over politics to extremes not possible given earlier technologies.  But what else would you expect?  There almost surely has to be parallels between the stimulus-and-response-crafted, super-unhealthy Standard American Diet and Lifestyle with the resulting obesity epidemic on the one hand, and the ever-falling quality of the American intellectual diet with its inevitable consequences on the other.  This is some dystopian shit right here.  The American public's ignorance of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle's recommendations for citizen-education is (of course) devolving into a vicious cycle.  Hell, take the ancient Greeks out of it, and just look at the United States's own founding generation to get an idea of what the American McCitizenry have methodically become oblivious to.  Franklin and Jefferson are rolling in their graves; they would be absolutely fucking disgusted by that which is the leading cause of empire-decline, metastasizing throughout this land of ours.

(Jefferson was well-versed in many of the ancient Greeks, by the way.  He was, after all, President of the American Philosophical Society.  It's a tad unfortunate that he hadn't been familiar with Aristotle, though.)

There's no way to sugar-coat what's going on here; given what American politics is now, it is "politically incorrect" to name and face these damning facts.  Right now, average American citizens are unorganized grabasstic pieces of amphibian shit, built like Private Pyle, and headed directly into a world of shit.  They have not been given the proper motivation.  Dial meters only feed into their bad cognitive habits; it is the habits that need to be changed.  That is all for now.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Deep Blue of Philosophy?

Just posted this to a reddit r/Objectivism thread:

I often find that when I come to some point of Objectivism (or anything else) that I critique, I employ the methods of Objectivist thinking and I can't think of any way around those methods, which emphasize the concepts of integration, context, and hierarchy. How does one attack those concepts without self-contradiction? Anyway, if I come upon something in Rand's writings that I think falls short, I critique it on the grounds that it isn't a correct application of her own prescribed methods. This is why I'm more comfortable calling myself a perfectivist than an Objectivist; it commits me to no doctrine or practice other than the relentless accumulation and integration of knowledge, like with Aristotle. There are chess grandmasters, and then there's Kasparov, and Aristotle is philosophy's Kasparov. (Which raises a question: could a philosophical "Deep Blue" be developed? Damn...has that question been asked before?)

Just to clear up a thing or two right away: Deep Blue isn't a conscious entity.  As it is there are discussions within philosophy of mind circles whether and how we can determine that a machine with the behavioral characteristics of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey is conscious.  HAL does display many if not all requisite characteristics of intelligence.  Deep Blue is far from a HAL, but much like HAL, is quite expert at performing the task of playing chess, but that is a rather limited task.

What led me quite quickly to think of HAL is what HAL is short for: Heuristic ALgorithmic.  I'm not an expert on what a heuristic algorithm involves, but I gather Deep Blue relies on such a princple.  (The term "heuristics" appears once in the Deep Blue wikipedia article, so I'm probably onto something.)

Something else to clear up: Where "the highest responsibility of human philosophers is to serve as the guardians and integrators of human knowledge" (Rand, ITOE), a Deep Blue machine wouldn't technically qualify as a philosophical machine because knowledge requires a consciousness.  (I'm pretty sure of that necessary connection but I'll think it through some more.)  What a Deep Blue machine, in the task of integration, would be integrating content without being aware of that content.  (I'm speaking here of the Deep Blue machine as it is now, not an extra-advanced one like HAL.)

But here's the interesting part: Say that scientists could program a machine of Deep Blue's computing power to crawl the web (Google, wikipedia, etc.), integrate its contents, and generate output for humans to work with.  Would that (not) be pretty awesome?  Would the task involve much greater complexity than that involved in playing a chess game while seeing 18 moves ahead?  Could such an algorithm be developed to hone in on what is essential content, and to hone in on connections between items of content, such as what terms in a wikipedia article are hyperlinked?  As has already been discovered, wikipedia has a hierarchical organization demonstrated through a certain pattern of hyperlinking practices, with approximately 95% of wikipedia entries leading to the Philosophy entry.  (This would come as a surprise to a lot of folks, but not the least bit of a surprise to Miss Rand, who, aside from penning endlessly-carictured novels, actually wrote things on the nature and role of philosophy in the human endeavor, and topics connected with that.  If this kind of stuff had already been spelled out in philosophy textbooks, I might have noticed.  Seeing as so few people acknowledge the fundamental role of philosophy in human life, I doubt this message, even if contained in textbooks, got through to the readers as it fucking well should have.)  Wikipedia is quite the example of a system of content, enabled by the development of the internet, that, qua mapping of territory, condenses or essentializes a vast array of territorial concretes.  (I think the term "encyclopedic knowledge" involves the same phenomenon, i.e., systematic essentialization, not necessarily an expertise or familiarity with the mind-boggling number of concretes that an essentialized system necessarily contains.  Encyclopedic knowledge isn't so concrete-bound.)

Hell, what might result if such a machine were set to the task of integrating the contents merely of a high-quality dictionary?

I'll leave the rest to the imagination.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Legalize it, cont'd

From the "Integrate, dammit!" department:

Judge Posner calls for an end to the obvious insanity.

In the philosopher's queue: Nozick's unusual journey from leftist to libertarian; abortion and human rights (and the Ninth Amendment?)